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Williams v. Gusman

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 24, 2015



LANCE M. AFRICK, District Judge.

The Court has pending before it a motion[1] for partial summary judgment filed by defendant, Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman ("the Sheriff"). Plaintiffs oppose the motion.[2] For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED.


This case arises out of the death of Willie Rhodes Lee ("Mr. Lee"), an inmate at Orleans Parish Prison ("OPP").[3] According to plaintiffs, Mr. Lee was attacked by another OPP inmate on March 23, 2014.[4] After the attack, he allegedly complained to OPP deputies about having difficulty breathing and his history of heart problems.[5] His requests were allegedly ignored for forty minutes; medical care was delayed, and Mr. Lee died later that night.[6]

Plaintiffs, Mr. Lee's mother and daughter, [7] filed this lawsuit against the Sheriff. No other defendants are named in the complaint. Plaintiffs bring claims against the Sheriff "in his individual capacity and in his official capacity" pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[8] They allege that the Sheriff deprived Mr. Lee of various constitutional rights, including the right to medical care, and "established, condoned, ratified and encouraged customs, policies, patterns, and practices at the Orleans Parish Prison which directly and proximately caused the deprivation of [Mr. Lee's] civil and constitutional rights."[9] Plaintiffs also allege state-law negligence claims against the Sheriff.[10] They request compensatory and punitive damages.[11] The Sheriff moves for partial summary judgment "seeking dismissal of only the federal claims against him."[12]


Summary judgment is proper when, after reviewing the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits, the court determines there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. "[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment need not produce evidence negating the existence of material fact, but need only point out the absence of evidence supporting the other party's case. Id .; Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1195 (5th Cir. 1986).

Once the party seeking summary judgment carries its burden pursuant to Rule 56, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The showing of a genuine issue is not satisfied by creating "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ' by conclusory allegations, ' by unsubstantiated assertions, ' or by only a scintilla' of evidence." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Instead, a genuine issue of material fact exists when the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party responding to the motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the pleadings, but must identify specific facts that establish a genuine issue. Id. The nonmoving party's evidence, however, "is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [the nonmoving party's] favor." Id. at 255; see also Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999). "Finally, and especially relevant to this case, on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence proffered by the plaintiff to satisfy his burden of proof must be competent and admissible at trial." Bellard v. Gautreaux, 675 F.3d 454, 460 (5th Cir. 2012); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e).


As explained above, the Sheriff's motion addresses only plaintiffs' federal claims. Plaintiffs contend that Mr. Lee was denied his constitutional right to adequate medical care, and they pursue recovery pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Sheriff in both his official and individual capacities.[13] Plaintiffs' briefing is long on hyperbole but short on careful articulation of their theories of recovery against the Sheriff in either capacity.[14] They generally contend that unconstitutional deprivation of adequate medical care "must be viewed as the accepted custom of the Sheriff's Office."[15]

With respect to plaintiffs' official-capacity claim, a § 1983 claim against a Louisiana sheriff in his official capacity "is in essence' a suit against a municipality." See Brown v. Strain, 663 F.3d 245, 251 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Woodard v. Andrus, 419 F.3d 348, 352 (5th Cir. 2005)); see also Burge v. Parish of St. Tammany, 187 F.3d 452, 466 (5th Cir. 1999) ("Official capacity suits generally represent another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent."). "Under the decisions of the Supreme Court and [the Fifth Circuit], municipal liability under section 1983 requires proof of three elements: a policy maker; an official policy; and a violation of constitutional rights whose moving force' is the policy or custom." Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 579 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)).

A plaintiff may establish the requisite official policy by proving "a persistent, widespread practice of [government] officials or employees, which, although not authorized by officially adopted and promulgated policy, is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy." Id. (quotation marks and alterations omitted). "Isolated violations are not the persistent, often repeated, constant violations that constitute custom and policy as required for municipal section 1983 liability." Id. at 581 (quotation marks omitted). "A pattern requires similarity and specificity; prior indications cannot simply be for any and all bad' or unwise acts, but rather must point to the specific violation in question.'" Peterson v. City of Fort Worth, 588 F.3d 838, 851 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Estate of Davis ex rel. McCully v. City of North Richland Hills, 406 F.3d 375, 383 (5th Cir. 2005)). "A pattern also requires sufficiently numerous prior incidents, ' as opposed to isolated instances.'" Id. (quoting McConney v. City of Houston, 863 F.2d 1180, 1184 (5th Cir. 1989)).[16]

With respect to the § 1983 claim against the Sheriff in his individual capacity, it is wellsettled that "[s]upervisory officials cannot be held liable under section 1983 for the actions of subordinates... on any theory of vicarious or respondeat superior liability." McCully, 406 F.3d at 381. Plaintiffs do not suggest that the Sheriff personally delayed Mr. Lee's medical care on March 23, 2014, or otherwise directly played a direct role in Mr. Lee's death.[17] However, "[s]upervisory liability may additionally exist without overt personal participation in the offensive act if supervisory officials implement a policy so deficient that the policy itself is a repudiation of constitutional rights and is the moving force of the constitutional violation.'" Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Parish Council, 279 F.3d 273, 289 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Thompkins v. Belt, 828 F.2d 298, 304 (5th Cir. 1987)) (applying identical definition of "custom").[18]

Plaintiffs concede, as they must in light of the governing law, that it is their burden to prove a pattern of constitutional violations at OPP similar to the alleged deprivation of medical care which resulted in Mr. Lee's death.[19] In opposition to the Sheriff's motion, plaintiffs submit (1) two letters from the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") to Sheriff Gusman, and (2) three reports prepared by the Monitor in connection with the Consent Judgment applicable to OPP. See Jones v. Gusman, 296 F.R.D. 416 (E.D. La. 2013) (order and reasons approving Consent ...

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